Which rookies are bound to hit the ground running this year?
By Chris Trapasso
Now that draft picks need to be considered rookies, it’s time to pinpoint which are ready to be “instant impact” players — one of my favorite phrases to type this time of year on the NFL calendar. Because, remember, just about every team is technically in “win-now” mode given how short patience has become in today’s society.
Last year, Justin Herbert erupted out of the gate. So did Tristan Wirfs. And Justin Jefferson. And Chase Young. Here’s my list of the top 10 instant impact rookies from the 2021 NFL Draft class.
*You’ll notice I didn’t include quarterbacks. Outrageously obvious. You’d learn nothing from me writing Trevor Lawrence is instant impact.
10. Richie Grant, S, Falcons
Grant, my selection for the best Falcons pick — when factoring in value — will be instant impact in Atlanta. The Falcons safety group consists of Erik Harris, Duron Harmon, and 2020 fourth-round pick Jaylinn Hawkins. Grant brings the most energy and sheer versatility to that collection of safeties.
However the Falcons want to use him — and it’s likely he wears a variety of hats — Grant will excel. Just like what was the case at UCF. He’s an older prospect who’ll turn 24 in November, so there better be early returns on the Falcons making Grant the No. 40 overall selection in 2021 draft.
9. Elijah Moore, WR, Jets
Moore exemplifies what it means to be a high-floor prospect. He produced early in his college career at Ole Miss, steadily improved his production each season in Oxford and tested extremely well at his pro day.
Outside of his smaller frame — which actually fits quite well into the slot — there’s not a noticeable flaw in Moore’s game. He’s sudden against press at the line of scrimmage, snaps in and out of his breaks to generate separation, and is one of the more sure-handed receivers in this rookie class. Plus there’s some downfield juice to his game as well.
I know Jamison Crowder has established himself as one of the league’s steadiest slot targets. But Moore will quickly become a favorite target of new Jets quarterback Zach Wilson.
8. Andre Cisco, S, Jaguars
Safeties with Cisco’s skill set are unicorns. I’m serious. He’s nearly 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds — large for a modern-day NFL safety. He routinely makes splash plays against the run because of his twitch, skill to avoid or shed blockers, and speed to the football.
But he’s not a box safety! He’s a rangy ball hawk. Cisco had 13 interceptions in 25 career games at Syracuse. Insane ball production. His instincts are phenomenal, and — paired with his athletic gifts — allow him to find the football. Often.
Safety Andrew Wingard led Jacksonville defensive backs with two picks in 2020. Cisco can and will be placed into a playmaker role in Joe Cullen’s defense in 2021, and his production and athletic traits indicate he’ll be ready to pick off where he left off at Syracuse early in his NFL career.
7. Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Giants
Ojulari did not deserve to have to wait until the 50th pick in the 2021 draft to hear his name called. He was a consistent pressure-creator as a 20-year-old rusher in the SEC at Georgia. And, I get it — the safe assumption with a 6-2, 249-pound edge defender is that he gets worked against the run.
That’s not the case with Ojulari. He sets a mean edge and can rip through blockers to make impact plays in the backfield against the run. But of course the main reason he was selected by the Giants was to get after the quarterback, and the former Bulldogs star has the first-step burst, bend around the corner, speed-to-power conversion, and just enough pass-rushing moves to be a high-caliber pressure-generator in the NFL.
And the Giants are lacking a true alpha at the edge position. Ifeadi Odenigbo was signed in free agency, an underrated pass rusher for years in Minnesota, but Ojulari has more juice. More upside. And I believe he’s good enough right now to be instant impact flying around the edge in New York’s defense.
6. Brady Christensen, OT, Panthers
Have to get one offensive linemen in here, and I didn’t want it to be a first-round pick. Too obvious. Quietly, Christensen is the likely Week 1 starter for the Panthers at left tackle, protecting Sam Darnold. Sure, he’ll battle it out with 2019 second-round pick Greg Little, but the former Ole Miss star hasn’t come close to meeting expectations early in his NFL career and has no connections to the current Carolina staff.
Christensen’s BYU film was pretty darn clean. And it should have been for a 24-year-old blocker with 38 games on his college resume. He moves well for his size and was a quality battler in pass protection with high-end balance.
5. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Chargers
Samuel screams instant impact on film. He’s feisty at the line of scrimmage, stays in phase during the route like a five-year veteran — thanks to jagged athletic traits — and plays the football in the air like his father.
And it was time for the Chargers to add a youthful cornerback to the roster. Disregard the fact that Samuel is not even 5-11. Neither is Denzel Ward. He can play on the perimeter in Los Angeles’ offense and thrive. If he does need to play in the slot — which many cornerbacks have to do on occasion — there’s precedent with new Chargers head coach Brandon Staley making it work with a 5-10 defensive back.
With the Rams, the nearly identically-sized Troy Hill flourished inside and ultimately signed a lucrative deal with the Browns in free agency. Samuel is going to be star from the jump in the NFL.
4. Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Dolphins
The Dolphins likely love what they got out of Emmanuel Ogbah in 2020 — nine sacks, five batted passes and six tackles for loss in his first year on the edge in Miami.
The former second-round pick out of Oklahoma State has carved a nice career for himself on three separate teams, and he still isn’t 28 years old. However, he’s probably never going to be a premier, No. 1 outside pass rusher in the NFL. That’s likely what precipitated the Dolphins selection of Phillips at No. 18 overall.
Had he not had concussion concerns, Phillips probably would’ve gone in the top 10. He checks all the boxes needed to be a consistent, three-down rusher in today’s NFL.
3. Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team
Davis is a run-and-chase linebacker. What does that mean? It implies he’s fast and is a “see ball, get ball” type of second-level defender. There’s more explosion and twitch to his game than finesse in and around climbing blockers.
Fortunately for Davis, he has Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, and Chase Young in front of him. All first-round monsters who’ve played exceptionally well early in their careers for the Football Team.
And Ron Rivera knows linebacker play. We know that from his time in Carolina. And Davis has the fluidity to flip his hips and find the football while sinking down the seam. That’s huge. The one-year Kentucky standout is going to overflow the stat sheet as a rookie.
2. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals
Ok, this comes from the Captain Obvious drawer. I don’t care. Chase needed to be included in this article. Sure, there’s Tee Higgins — who turned in a fine rookie year — and the super-steady Tyler Boyd in Cincinnati.
But this man set the SEC on fire in 2019 with Joe Burrow throwing him passes. They have a serious connection. And you don’t select a receiver at No. 5 overall and not making the top pass-game option immediately. The only minimal concern I have with Chase is his propensity to lean on physicality to beat press at the line instead of crafty footwork or hand use. Other than that, he’s an elite rookie receiver from the first snap of the 2021 season.
1. Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons
Pitts, man. He’s a different breed. And he’s in an offense that absolutely has to account for JULIO JONES. And Calvin Ridley, who’s fresh off a 90-catch, 1,354-yard, nine-touchdown 2020. Sure, his production was inflated because Jones was injured. But the big man is back, which is going to give Ridley even more advantageous cornerback matchups.
And who in the world is covering Pitts? Your linebacker isn’t. Neither is your safety or your slot corner. The 6-6, 240-plus pound explosive yet nuanced route runner with a soccer net catch radius and deceptive YAC capabilities is in for a monster Year 1 with Matt Ryan throwing him passes in the ATL.